Poll: Foreign aid cut tops America’s priority

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If U.S. citizens had their way, foreign aid may be the first to be reduced in times of need, a new poll suggests as the dreaded sequester deadline approaches.

While most Americans don’t support spending cuts, about 48 in 100 think aid to the world’s needy should be reduced, Pew Research Center’s latest survey shows.

The survey, released Feb. 22, gave 19 options for cutting government spending, and foreign aid was chosen by 70 in 100 Republicans and 25 in 100 Democrats.

Even then, Pew’s polling results can be read in another way: Half of Americans also want to increase foreign aid or keep it at the current level.

While Pew’s survey speaks of a divided nation on foreign aid spending, a survey released last month by the Better World Campaign painted a different picture of America’s sentiment on development assistance.

About 67 in 100 Americans across the political spectrum support keeping or increasing the portion of the U.S. federal budget on global health aid. About 80 percent of Americans believed it’s in “America’s best interest to continue to actively support the United Nations.”

While these polls, and similar ones, may be inconclusive, they may still find prominence in the coming days as lobbying and backroom bartering intensifies to find a deficit reduction deal that avoids the dreaded sequestration, which would usher in $85 billion across-the-board cuts.

What could such a deal mean? A mix of cuts and revenue generation through taxes, perhaps. In that case, it’s either slice the big-ticket items like defense or cut the small ones like foreign aid.

The hammer, however, would likely fall on priorities that would not cost big political fortunes.

Why foreign assistance tends to appear on so many shortlists of cuts may have something to do with America’s perception about it. Americans believed 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, according to a 2010 survey by World Public Opinion.

Yet the United States’ whole foreign policy is just $1 for every $100 spent on other sectors, U.S. officials have noted. 

In his first major foreign policy speech delivered last week, Secretary of State John Kerry argued: “Over 1 percent, a little bit more, funds all of our civilian and foreign affairs efforts — every embassy, every program that saves a child from dirty drinking water, or from AIDS, or reaches out to build a village, and bring America’s values.”

It’s particularly hard to make a case for increased aid spending when most of Americans want other things to be prioritized in times of spending cuts. Based on Pew’s latest survey, about 70 percent of citizens would favor increasing military defense spending or keep it at the current level as against the 49 percent of citizens who want to increase or keep aid spending as it is.

If U.S. lawmakers can’t agree on a plan to avert this sequestration just in time, this could mean $200 million less for humanitarian assistance, $400 million for global health, $70 million for food aid, and $70 million for USAID’s operating costs, as per estimates by the State Department.

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About the author

  • John Alliage Morales

    As a former Devex staff writer, John Alliage Morales covered the Americas, focusing on the world's top donor hub, Washington, and its aid community. Prior to joining Devex, John worked for a variety of news outlets including GMA, the Philippine TV network, where he conducted interviews, analyzed data, and produced in-depth stories on development and other topics.